Elon senior named Gates Cambridge Scholar

Leena Dahal '17 will pursue a master's degree in modern south Asian studies at the University of Cambridge in England with the support of a scholarship established by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

An Elon senior has been selected as one of just 90 scholars who will pursue graduate degrees at the University of Cambridge in England with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Leena Dahal ’17 was selected from a pool of about 6,000 applicants for the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which was awarded to 35 scholars from the United States and 55 from around the world. A native of Nepal who has lived in Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh and Indonesia, Dahal is a Lumen Prize winner who is majoring in strategic communications and international studies and will pursue a master’s degree in modern south Asian studies at Cambridge. 

“This will provide this network of people from all around the world who are committed to improving the lives of others,” Dahal said of her selection as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. “I would be proud to be part of that community. That’s a passion I share.”

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, seeks applicants who are academically outstanding and are likely to be transformative leaders across a wide variety of fields. The scholarship program was established in October 2000 by a donation of $210 million from the Microsoft founder and his wife, and is the largest single donation to a university in the United Kingdom. 

“Gates Cambridge Scholars come from all over the world, but they have some important things in common: great leadership potential, a commitment to improving the lives of others and an unparalleled passion for learning,” said Bill Gates. “Melinda and I are pleased to welcome the class of 2017. We have no doubt they will have an incredible impact on topics of global importance.”

Dahal graduated from the American International School of Dhaka in Bangladesh, and had never been to the United States before applying to Elon. Dahal has excelled at Elon, where she has been an award-winning journalist for Elon News Network and pursued a variety of undergraduate research opportunities. Along with receiving the Lumen Prize, Dahal is an International Fellow and a recipient of the Brad Hamm International Scholarship Award from the School of Communications. 

As a Lumen Scholar Dahal has focused her research on the role of social media in shaping youth agency and the impacts of digital inclusion and exclusion during periods of national crisis, with a particular emphasis on her home country of Nepal, which was ravaged by an earthquake in April 2015 that killed at least 9,000 people. 

“The National and International Fellowships Office at Elon was foundational in giving me the confidence to apply,” Dahal said. “They supported me throughout the application process.”

At Cambridge, Dahal plans to continue her study of social media, with a focus on whether it helped or hindered discussion of nationalism and identity in response to the 2015 unofficial border blockade between Nepal and India. “I will be drawing off the theories I’ve learned studying strategic communications and international studies here at Elon,” Dahal said. “I see that being selected as a Gates Cambridge Scholar offers the opportunity to tie these various threads together. My mentors have made an investment in me as a person, and in my intellectual growth. It’s exciting to sit back and realize that this scholarship is not just a product of my own efforts.”

One of those mentors is Mussa Idris, assistant professor of anthropology who has helped guide Dahal as a Lumen Scholar. “She thinks globally and looks for local solutions,” Idris said. “She is a person with a strong work ethic and she is innovative. Leena has the ability to produce impressive results in a wide variety of areas for positive social change, youth empowerment and social justice.”

Complimenting her adaptability and willingness to rise to a challenge, Idris notes that Dahal shifted her Lumen research following the earthquake in Nepal to repurpose her existing research and ask important questions for the post-disaster context. “She is passionate about helping other human beings, she cares about social justice and she is highly motivated,” Idris said. 

Associate Professor of Religious Studies Amy Allocco has worked extensively with Dahal at Elon, and describes her as “the sort of engaged, bright and enthusiastic student who comes along only a few times in a decade. … Leena is clear about her expectation that being part of an intellectual community comes with many privileges as well as responsibilities, such as the imperative to not only receive but to also contribute, participate, and give back so that she leaves the community better than she found it.”

Dahal said she was drawn to Cambridge by the university’s approach to south Asian studies, and following the completion of her master’s degree program, she plans to return to Nepal.

“I hope to return to Nepal and work with other forces promoting peace between Nepal and India,” Dahal said. “With a better understanding of ethnopolitical realities of South Asia and the support of belonging to a global network of change-makers, I will return to Nepal and work with communities on the ground with the intention of supporting the forces acting for the creation of a more inclusive, democratic Nepal with more fluid definitions of Nepali identity.”

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